The study of film
and cognition has been pursued along three distinct conceptual lines, each
corresponding to a different sense of the term cognition. These can be
subdivided as skills, states and knowledge.
It signifies a set
of cognitive skills that would be necessary or enhancing to the effective
viewing of film. Salomon’s method of conceptualizing film viewing skills, then,
was to define the psycho-logically pertinent elements of film making techniques
and to infer a specific cognitive skill associated with the reception of those
elements. The problem remains whether this identification of cognitive
functions (things that cognition accomplishes) is a valid way to identify
cognitive skills (what cognition is).
offers a more complex, and at the same time more parsimonious, model of
cognition. The central construct of Piaget’s model is the schema, the cognitive
unit of understanding that is formed through inter-action with the environment.
Through a dynamic balance of assimilation and accommodation schema are formed,
generalized, and differentiated, becoming equilibrated structures that are
capable of repeated functioning even as they are continually open to change and
reformation. Piaget’s model is parsimonious because it poses a single dynamic
structure (the schema) applicable to all varieties of cognitive experience. It
has been understood that the viewer’s response to film, in any model of
cognition, must bridge the conceptual gap between intelligence and perception.
explicates a notion of visual cognition that adds to, while remaining
compatible with, Piaget’s structuralist view. Arnheim develops the concept of
perception as an intelligent act, comprising such operations as active
explorations, election, grasping of essentials, simplification, abstraction,
analysis, synthesis, completion, and correction. The unit for model-building
purposes of visual intelligence is the Gestalt. The gestalt is the principle of
organization that searches out reality and creates meaningful form, and itself
becomes differentiated through the inter-action.
Researchers of a
more rigorous bent have approached the problem of visual cognition by extending
their experience with verbal language to create the metaphor of visual
literacy. They have then sought out a visual alphabet, visual grammar, and
visual syntax and conceptualized the cognitive response in relation to this
essentially verbal metaphor.
visual understanding begins with active visual perception and concludes with
meanings that are internally represented in visual form. Neisser (1976)
highlights the cognitive time period necessary for schema to develop in
response to a perceptual situation, that is, the time it takes for a viewer to
explore and focus upon a painting or sculpture.
The question is
how this fixed time span affects the cognitive time period in which the viewer
assimilates and accommodates the object of attention. These are central
questions that a full psychology of the film will want to address. Arnheim’s
and Neisser’s model of visual cognition emerges as a promising foundation for
the study of film and cognition. Thus, the study proceeded in the direction of
having a better view about the matter.
The film viewing
experience has been described as being like a dream state. Langer (1966) gives
concise statement of the idea of film as dream. As in a dream, she observes,
the film presents an ongoing series of images and events, with the viewer
always at the center of those events. These images seem as though they are the
viewer’s creation. Furthermore, as in a dream, boundaries of space and time are
not observed: series of situations are related by feeling, not by natural
proximity. Television differs cognitively from film mainly because the lack of
peripheral visual experience and image quality cannot induce the dream state so
Mast (1977) has
put forth a theory of film experience that shares Petric’s image of a passive
viewer overtaken by illusion. For Mast, the film is an especially convincing
illusion of reality because of its dual powers of mimesis (photographic
representation) and kinesis (movement over time).
Metz (1977) adds a
cautionary note, however. He poses the question of whether film viewing is like
dreaming and concludes that it is not, for at least three reasons: the
perception of film is real perception, not an internal psychic event; films are
more structured than dreams; and they are not as absurd. Film, Metz concludes,
is more like a daydream.
The visual arts in
general, and film in particular, possess the capacity to initiate an
epistemological cycle, a cycle that begins with a symbolic presentation and
ends with the viewer’s cognition. The knowledge that is somehow embodied in the
presentation, and that is somehow understood through cognition, is the common
factor throughout this cycle. The non-discursive symbols of the visual arts
present to the viewer a wider range of meaning than language can convey.
Film shares the
capacity of the arts in general to present affectively compelling presentations
of world views. Film also possesses unique representational capacities that
enable it to present additional aspects of the artist’s world view. The
temporal and sequential nature of film allows it to organize images in a pattern
that simulates the pattern of the artist’s perception and thought.
(1973), the reader functions with the work as a co-creator of meaning. The work
suggests mental images, which the reader must objectify. The work supplies
potential meanings that are concretized by the reader’s formation of an
phenomenological model of reading, and especially its treatment of temporal
concerns, is also applicable to film. How synthetic images are formed in
response to a series of discrete sequential presentations, over time, is an
issue common to both film and the novel. With this concern for temporal
sequence comes a range of problems in the development of cognitive schema,
including the interactive effects of past and future, the formation of wholes
from parts, and the establishing of foreground and background.
Human beings are
continually constructing internal meanings at the same time that we are
absorbed in retinal reality. Viewers cannot absorb cinematic images any more
than they can absorb reality. Instead they undertake a perceptual dialogue,
seeing in part what their schemas encourage them to seek out, and in part what
the artist’s shaping of cinematic form encourages them to see. With film,
viewers spend less time with any single image but an equivalent amount of
cognitive time with the work as a whole.
presents numerous cases that support the view of cognition put forth here. D.
W. Griffith, by breaking scenes down to close-ups and long-shots and by
alternating times and places, demonstrated the possibility of conveying a
situation and its meaning through a segmented presentation. Eisenstein and
Pudovkin each formalized theories of how montage conveys the artist’s intended
meaning to the viewer, and conducted experiments to demonstrate that completely
different meanings are conveyed by arranging the same group of shots in
If the film maker
involves the viewer in a stereotyped, superficial, or destructive view of
reality, then schema may be gained, but no broadening of understanding can
occur as a result. This is the situation that exists with most commercial
television and many feature films.